How to Pick a Point of View

The other day I was talking to a high school kid who told me he’d never learned about Point of View in school. So that’s what I’m going to ramble about, this week. If you don’t know, you can learn, and if you do know… well, here’s a refresher. Those are always nice, right?

Point of View, (also known as the PoV,) refers to the way the author tells the story to the reader.

There are three perspectives from which to write.

  • First Person— I sit up and do the thing
  • Third Person—He sits up and does the thing
  • Second Person—You sit up and do the thing

And these perspectives can be further separated by the tense the author uses.

  • Past tense—She did the thing
  • Present tense—She does the thing
  • Future tense—She will do the thing

Technically these can be combined in just about any way you like, but people don’t generally use the second person or the future tense. Though I’m sure there are exceptions, both are hard to use well, and both techniques run the risk of alienating readers.

I’m going to skip talking about second person, and instead I’m just going to cover the most popular perspectives.

  • First Person

    • Past Tense
      “Despite the sleet, the wagon burned. I huddled in the shadow of a fallen tree with my back to the fire.”

    • Present Tense
      Despite the sleet, the wagon burns. I huddle in the shadow of a fallen tree with my back to the fire.”

This perspective is good for when you want the reader to be intimately connected to the main character. You want to show their innermost thoughts and feelings, and you want to show the reader the world through your character’s eyes.

It’s great for showing off your character’s voice, and it’s a great excuse to be able to address the reader in a slangy, informal tone. It’s like talking to a friend, rather than being lectured at by a stranger, and the character’s emotions are all the more important and all the more real.

Danger feels more real, too. Because we’re in the narrator’s head, their fear and pain and safety becomes more important to us, and it becomes that much easier for readers to identify and become invested in the action. Suspense is often more suspenseful from the first person.

You’re stuck in one head. Unless your character is psychic or something, you don’t have any way of knowing what the other characters are doing or thinking or anything. And even if your character is psychic, they’re probably not going to be able to know everything. If your character isn’t there to witness an event, they can’t know about it.

It’s easy to show off your character’s voice too much. If you get too colorful and wild with your creative metaphors and casual slang, you run the risk of confusing your reader. If your reader gets confused, they won’t want to read the book.

Likewise, if your reader doesn’t like your narrating character, they’ll find it that much harder to enjoy the story. Remember that time at lunch when that jerk insisted on telling you all about that fantastic vacation he went on, even though you couldn’t have cared less? Even if the events being described are totally awesome, it’s hard to enjoy the story if you don’t like the person telling it.

Finally, it’s a lot harder to kill off the main character when they’re the one telling the story, especially when the story is told in the past tense. It’s not impossible, but you have to get a lot more creative for the readers to accept it. One way or the other, a reader is generally safe assuming that the narrator makes it to the end of the book. Sometimes you want this, sometimes you don’t.

  • Third Person

    • Limited—Imagine the narrator as a movie camera hovering over the main character’s shoulder. The narrator is outside of the character’s head, but it really only interested in one character at a time.
      • Pros: More flexible than first person, you can switch between PoV characters with much greater ease. You can give background information and description without needing an excuse to get the character to think about it for the audience. The main character can fall unconscious or die, and you’ll still be able to keep telling the story.
      • Cons: You still have to watch who’s head you’re in. It’s very easy to slip up and start going on about the thoughts and feeling about someone other than the main character, and that’s not good.
    • Omnicient—This is the kind of narrator that dives from one head to another at will, showing the story from any angle the author pleases.
      • Pros: You can discuss things none of the characters have any business knowing. You don’t need to follow anybody in particular in order to get your point across, and you can show the reader the thoughts and opinions and histories of anyone you like.
      • Cons: This is incredibly hard to do well. It’s all too easy to fall into the “Show vs. Tell” pit, and because you’re able to show the reader everyone, it’s more difficult to make them connect with anyone. You have to take care not to give too much redundant information, or switch perspective too freely and risk losing and confusing the reader.

In summary, there are a whole bunch of possible PoVs you can use to write a story. 

  • First person
    is good for intimacy and is favored by young adult writers and writers of YA fiction, though it can be limiting.

  • Third Person Limited
    is almost as intimate as first person PoV, is a bit more flexible, and is probably the most popular PoV overall.
  • Third Person Omniscient
    is the least limiting and the least intimate, and the hardest mainstream PoV to do well.

  • Second person
    exists, but it’s only ever really used experimentally, and isn’t recommended if you actually want people to read your stuff.

Different people have different preferences, but all the options are legitimate choices. Each different PoV has something different to offer, and can change the way a story is told. Think carefully before you decide, and take the approach best suited to your story.

Or you can always be like me and flip a coin, if you can’t choose. Give it a shot and see what works—every PoV has something to offer.